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Inspired curation brings surprises to big-name still-lifes at the NCMA

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Before "been there, done that," we had the expression "seen the elephant." Originating from the potent combination of surprise, fear, joy and revulsion that Europeans felt upon seeing exotic animals for the first time, it eventually expressed how the spectacular is only so initially, flattening out quickly to approach the blasé.

Blockbuster art exhibitions sometimes suffer the same fate as the elephant. "Sure, I saw the Cézanne." It's up to curatorial staff to give a casual viewer a reason to spend more time looking at the artworks than the wall text next to them.

Still-Life Masterpieces, a ticketed show at the North Carolina Museum of Art, is a survey spanning 400 years and more than 70 paintings and decorative objects from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. There are plenty of big names to fawn over: Cézanne, Renoir, Courbet, Manet, Vuillard, van de Velde, Copley, Sisley, Matisse, Braque, Gris, MacDonald-Wright, O'Keeffe, Kline. And there's no shame in seeing the show as that roster, checking off the names and styles that you like.

But the real substance of Still-Life Masterpieces is its curation, which John Coffey, the NCMA's deputy director for art and curator of American and Modern Art, headed up. A pat, chronological organization was tossed out the window immediately. Coffey invited other staff and museum interns to help tape thumbnails of the paintings into the exhibition's "dollhouse"—a tabletop mockup of the galleries that they use to visualize shows before the art arrives. Their goal was to create interesting conversations between adjacent works that enlivened the paintings and the genre overall.

Their success is apparent in the first two images you see. The grim allegorical arrangement of Flemish painter Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts' "Vanitas Still Life" (circa 1659-1675) hangs next to Georgia O'Keeffe's retina-dazzling "A Sunflower from Maggie" (1937). At a glance, you learn the visual vocabulary of vanitas paintings, meant to point out life's brevity and the emptiness of material things. A candle's nub gutters in its own wax; a toppled hourglass no longer tracks time's passing; the canvas pulls away from an upper corner of its frame in a trompe l'oeil dog-ear; withered grasses form a faltering halo around a skull that stares at a floating bubble poised to burst.

Take one step to the right and another artist known for painting skulls chooses instead to celebrate the vibrant color of the blooming sunflower, a plant that nonetheless bends its stem fatally in half with the weight of its blossom. But who cares? Look at O'Keeffe's yellows! And her oranges!

You'll find plenty of these contrasts and connections, but you'll also gradually learn the arc of the still-life form, from the rise of secular art and scientific drawing in the 16th century and the ascendance of photography in the 20th. The earliest works throughout the exhibition revel in precision, shedding their allegories as the centuries pile up and the genre becomes a kind of formal laboratory in which to practice different stylistic approaches to representation.

The painting I looked at the longest was Scipio Goltzius' "Fruit and Vegetable Vendors" (1577), which is the oldest and largest work in the exhibition, and also perhaps the weirdest. Other than James Ensor's vaginal "Still Life with Sea Shells" (1923), it's also the most sexually charged. Every item in Goltzius' only known painting seems endowed with ambiguous meaning. A woman pours a dipper of water over some leeks in a bucket, but why was the painter so careful to depict the water's narrow stream flowing over her protruding index finger? Why is the man behind her adopting such an awkward pose, with his fingers at his neck? And what's the deal with the huge, white gourd hanging by its tip from a shelf of the vegetable stand? It's hard to know just how many winks and nudges this painting deserves.

The Goltzius is next to Sam Taylor-Wood's video "Still Life" (2001), which is the only work in the exhibition to employ the dimension of time (a twist on the notion of "still life"): A heaping plate of fruit is reduced, through desiccation, mold and rot, to a messy froth of matter in just under four time-lapse minutes. Next to the ambiguous but loaded Goltzius, it's oddly comforting to watch the ripeness and vitality of the fruit factually boil over into colorful decay—nature's version of abstraction.

Of the art history heavy-hitters, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Mixed Flowers in an Earthenware Pot" (1869) edges out Henri Matisse's "Vase of Flowers" (1924) as the most eye-catching. The Renoir shimmers partly because it was very possibly painted during the summer he and neighbor Claude Monet hung out together in a Paris suburb, and also because it's next to Gustave Courbet's grungier but more interesting "Hollyhocks in a Copper Bowl" (1872). Courbet may have painted his sober arrangement while in prison for provoking the dismantling of the "imperialist" column in the Place Vendôme. Denied requests to bring models into his cell, Courbet necessarily turned to still-life painting in the dimness.

The last room of Still-Life Masterpieces provides an understated triangulation that encapsulates the entire show in a tight conceptual coda. First you have Giorgio Morandi's cool, muted "Still Life of Bottles and Pitcher" (1946), which exemplifies his serial, meditative studio work. In this flat arrangement, Morandi barely acknowledges the third dimension with the contrasting colors of the table and background. Borrowing Morandi's palette and subject matter, Akira Arita's "Ten Bottles" (1980) couldn't be more formally different. Using photorealistic precision, the completely white bottles and impossibly flat table and wall become an unreal study of light on form.

The final painting—Jan Jansz van de Velde's virtuosic "Still Life with Goblet and Fruit" (1656)—is worth going slack-jawed over. A glass goblet half-full of water, handle studded with blackberries, sits next to a bowl of actual blackberries. One fallen berry is illuminated in a refracted jewel of light from the curve of the goblet. The room's reflection appears in the goblet's curvature.

The van de Velde and the Arita share their precision—the Dutchman reveling in it and the deadpan Japanese painter presenting it as artifice. The Arita and the Morandi show a similarly overriding compositional concern. But the Morandi and the van de Velde are next to each other to make a spiritual connection between the former's appreciation of things-as-such and the latter's sheer clarity of sight.

It's one of several moments in Still-Life Masterpieces that stop you in your tracks so that you look into the paintings instead of merely at them.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The pure pleasure of looking."

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